Ian MacKaye walks the walk
Ian MacKaye did not invent punk rock. But it’s quite possible that he has done more than any other artist in America to advance its cause, shape its ethics and define its aesthetic over the last 23 years.
As a founding member of Minor Threat, he embodied hard-core punk: fast, pithy, finger-pointing, us-against-them screeds from the bellies of alienated teens.
Later, with his current quartet Fugazi, he showed how punk could advance by embracing broader musical textures and more open-ended but still topical lyricism. With Minor Threat bandmate Jeff Nelson, he founded Dischord Records, which they still run as a creative outlet for Washington-area underground bands.
The label recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with the release of a potent three-CD box set, “20 Years of Dischord,” that documents each of the 50 bands that have recorded for it.
Like everything else about the label, the box is budget-priced at $25, and most individual releases sell for $10, several dollars less than most major-label albums.
Fugazi typically charges its fans no more than $6 for concerts that draw thousands whenever MacKaye, Guy Picciotto, Joe Lally and Brendan Canty choose to tour.
MacKaye met for an interview on his home turf, the campus of Georgetown University. It was here 25 years ago that he skateboarded down the cement walkways with his teenage friends, including a young Henry Rollins, while blasting Ted Nugent on a portable tape recorder. And it was here in 1979 that he saw his first punk rock concert, by the shockabilly quartet the Cramps.
“I had seen only arena shows to that point, and seeing the Cramps up close was both terrifying and life-changing,” he said. “I was 17, and it was the first time I saw this countercultural world. We called it punk -- an area where all conventional ideas foisted on us by schools, parents and society were challenged. It was a free area, and I became a part of it that day.”
MacKaye is an affable and articulate man, but he rarely does interviews. He prefers to let Fugazi’s music speak for itself, unembellished. But after addressing the recent Future of Music Coalition conference, in which he detailed how he’s been able to thrive outside the confines of the major labels for more than two decades, he agreed to sit down for a chat over afternoon tea.
Question: Rollins may have hit on the key to Dischord’s longevity in the liner notes to the box set when he wrote, “They are not trying to outdo, there is no competition.” In other words, it’s not about who can sell the most records.
Answer: Some of my favorite records sold 1,000 copies. I don’t equate success with numbers. The work we do at the label, we’re trying to document the folk music of this town. Music that is indigenous, organic and comes from an honest place. I am not an expansionist. I think expansionism is one of the great poisons of the American marketplace.
Q: Capitalists say that if you’re not growing, you’re dying.
A: I don’t believe in the what-the-market-will-bear theory of selling anything. I think people should be compensated for their work. At the same time, I know how much it cost to make this box set, and I know how much I need to charge people to make money on it. I want people to hear this music. The $5 or $6 door price we charge for our concerts rules out the idea that we have to deliver a certain kind of entertainment.
Paul McCartney, he had better be good when he charges $250 for a concert ticket. But if we charge $5, it frees us up to really lay into the evening, whatever it’s going to be. We can try things that McCartney can’t. In the same way with the records, they’re all experiments.
If you charge people $18 a CD, people ought to be entertained and they better like it. If you charge less than $10, it gives you freedom to explore different ideas. And we’ve done OK as a business.
The label has sold more than 2 million albums, including more than 1 million by Fugazi and more than 500,000 by Minor Threat.
Q: Unlike other labels that started off as regional punk labels, you’ve stayed true to your original course by exclusively documenting bands from Washington, D.C. Why?
A: There was a bit of an inferiority complex when punk started happening here in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, because we were all told to go to New York City to get noticed. But our attitude was: We’re from here; we’re staying here. When it started, punk rock was not covered by MTV or the mainstream media. And you had very distinctive scenes. Like in Chicago, you had Strike Under, the Effigies, Naked Raygun, Big Black. There were very distinctive communities in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Washington, and I’ve always loved context. I wanted for people to say, ‘If you want to know about D.C. underground music, listen to Dischord.’ It’s folk music made by people who are not thinking about commercial success but are thinking about songs they want to get out of their systems. I was inspired by folk labels like Folkways and Arhoolie as much as I was by punk labels like Dangerhouse.
Q: But back then, the idea of doing everything yourself was relatively novel in the music business. How did you start?
A: We started Dischord because I was in a band [the Teen Idles], and we wanted to put out a single. We had no idea how to do it. We sent the tape to the pressing plant and got back the vinyl singles.
We took a sleeve of another single, carefully peeled it open, pulled the glue apart, and unfolded the flaps to see how the sleeve had been constructed. We did a sketch, and then laid out our art in that. We asked a print shop to print copies of this 11- by 17-inch piece of paper. We got a stack of these things, took scissors and glue, cut out the shapes, folded and glued them individually: 10,000 singles by hand. We threw parties and had lots of friends come over to make record sleeves. We were kids figuring out how to literally make records.
Q: Now every rebellion is almost instantly co-opted by the corporations.
A: Don’t forget, at the tail end of the ‘70s; the whole ‘60s counterculture had been co-opted and repackaged and resold. Every television show had rock ‘n’ roll.
That’s why punk was such an incredible phenomenon, because we figured out how to rebel against the dominant culture of rebellion.
The powers that be will always take rebellion and co-opt it. It’s a way to sell stuff. They try to put their trademark on the edgy stuff. But there is always room to rebel against the business culture. People ask, “How did you do it?” A lot of rock people are standing on the rooftop, and they don’t want to show people the ladder. They want people to think they were delivered there by God’s helicopter. I’m totally willing to show people the ladder. All you have to do is climb. They think it must be a formula, when it’s really just a willingness to work.
Q: When you were a young punk rocker in the Teen Idles and Minor Threat, you used to get in fistfights over music. Now that you’re 40, how do you maintain that passion?
A: The anger is still there. I’m just better at it. Better at expressing it.
Greg Kot is rock music critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.
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